By Malcolm Johnson
(c) Connecticut Explored, Inc. Fall 2008
When In the Heights won the Tony Award for best musical in June, it took its place in a long line of tuneful shows that have debuted in Connecticut before moving to Broadway. First produced on a small scale at Wesleyan University in Middletown eight years ago and further developed at Waterford’s O’Neill Theater Center, In the Heights serves as a reminder of our state’s leading role in the history of the uniquely American stage phenomenon known as the musical.
Much of that history has been made at two major theaters: New Haven’s fabled Shubert Theater, once dubbed (at least by its own p.r. people) the Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits, and East Haddam’s Goodspeed Opera House, which in recent decades has held as its mission the preservation and promotion of American musical theater. Together, these venues, along with many smaller ones throughout the state that have launched Broadway hits, give Connecticut its claim to musical theater glory. It would take a whole book to fully document the state’s contributions to the world of musical theater. Here, instead, are some highlights of that history.
No other theater in the country can rival the Shubert, the landmark located half a block from the Yale campus, for its track record in staging Broadway-bound shows, including dramas and comedies along with musicals. Nearly every Rodgers and Hammerstein show opened here, and a cavalcade of stars of stage and screen, from Al Jolson to Julie Andrews, have performed on the Shubert’s stage. The Shubert has hosted more than 600 pre-Broadway tryouts, among them 300 world premieres and 50 American premieres. According to the Shubert’s press materials, those numbers more than double those of any theater in New York or in any of the other “try-out” cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington.
In 1914, Lee and J.J. Shubert opened their new showplace – two years after opening their first Shubert Theater, in New York City – in New Haven, naming it the Sam S. Shubert Theater after their brother. Among the theater’s earliest hits was the 1916 world premiere of Robinson Crusoe Jr., in which Al Jolson played a latter-day Friday in blackface. That genre is of course considered crude and objectionable today, but it’s good to stop and think about how far musical theater has come and how mature and sophisticated its offerings have become.
Jolson and Robinson Crusoe were both big hits both in New Haven and when they moved to Broadway. But not all of the Shubert’s shows, even those written by the great songwriters of the day, met with such success. While Yale grade Cole Porter scored in 1932 with The Gay Divorcee (the last show featuring Fred Astaire and the one that introduced the song “Night and Day”) and also had success in 1939 with Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr singing “Friendship” in DuBarry Was a Lady, his 1938 musical that gave Mary Martin her start is now half-forgotten. Titled Leave It to Me, it showcased the 24-year-old Martin in the now-famous song, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” Direction called for her to strip to a pink teddy. She missed the double entendres, but the audience loved it. Hartford’s own Sophie Tucker, who was also in the show, is said to have told her, “Just remember to look up to God and keep doing it.”
But 1938 was a good year for Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I Married an Angel, which starred Vera Zorina, served up the title number as well as the liltingly romantic tune “Spring is Here.” The Boys from Syracuse, the team’s take on Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, starred Eddie Albert and introduced three standards: “Falling in Love with Love,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and the lively “Sing for Your Supper.”
Partners since the 1920s, Rodgers and Hart took a break from working with each other; their parting gave Rodgers the opportunity to work with Oscar Hammerstein II, the scion of a theatrical clan who had collaborated with Kern on the hugely successful Show Boat (which did not premiere in New Haven). Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration was titled Away We Go when it was first staged at the Shubert in 1943. It was the first of a new kind of show, with more thoroughly integrated songs and a dream ballet by Agnes DeMille. Its songs, including “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” brought a sense of the joys of cowboy living to the city and the stage. Between the show’s run at the Shubert and its leap to Broadway, the signature anthem “Oklahoma!” was added – and the immortal show’s name was changed to the same.
The team’s next show, Carousel, had a difficult launch in New Haven, as John Raitt, who played Billy Bigelow, later recalled. Adapted from the 1909 play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar, the surreal tale of a carnival barker who comes back to earth after killing someone was transplanted in this production to a New England fishing village. The opening night in 1945 was reportedly a disaster, with the show running four hours long. Raitt told Alvin Klein, a critic for The New York Times, that Rodgers, in a stretcher with a bad back, watched what he saw as a flop. The production served up characters called Mr. and Mrs. God. “We gotta get God out of the parlor,” Raitt remembers Hammerstein saying. “Put him on a ladder and get rid of his wife.” But with songs like “If I Loved You,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and Billy’s “Soliloquy,” Carousel ultimately became a hit and a classic after leaving New Haven and undergoing a major rewrite.
Irving Berlin, who had been writing words and music since 1907, achieved his biggest hit with the 1946 Annie Get Your Gun, which starred Ethel Merman, a frequent presence at the Shubert. Under the guidance of producers Rodgers and Hammerstein, Ker was originally to have composed the score, but he died before he could get to it. One irony of the production was Berlin’s decision at one point to scrap “No Business Like Show Business” in the mistaken belief that Rodgers disliked the number. Needless to say, the song was restored.
A year later, the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe achieved its first major hit, bringing Brigadoon to the Shubert. Even with no big stars to carry it, the romantic tale of a Scottish town that comes alive every 100 years won over audiences, wooing them with songs like “Heather on the Hill.”
Closing out the decade, in 1949, was a big comeback show for Rodgers and Hammerstein. South Pacific brought Mary Martin back to the Shubert to wash Ezio Pinza right out of her hair and to identify Nellie Forbush as a “cockeyed optimist.” The production raised eyebrows with its treatment of cross-racial relationships but won hearts with such gorgeous songs as “Some Enchanted Evening,” which can now be heard again in the current, highly acclaimed revival at Lincoln Center.
The 1950s, sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of the American musical, supplied the Shubert with hit after hit, beginning in 1950 with another Berlin-Merman collaboration, Call Me Madam. While not as abundant in great show tunes as Annie Get Your Gun, the tale of a Washington hostess with the “mostest” gave Merman a great duet with Russell Nype, “You’re Not Sick, You’re Just in Love.”
Next came another Rodgers and Hammerstein smash, also in 1950, which established Yul Brynner and gave him a role he played until his death. Like Carousel, The King and I had a troubled opening, running far too long. But actress Gertrude Lawrence had some wonderful songs in her last great role, including “Getting to Know You,” and choreographer Jerome Robbins created the memorable story ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” as an innovative element of the show.
1953 brought a surefire hit, Wonderful Town, with songs by Leonard Bernstein and the team of songwriters Betty Comden and Adolphe Green and Rosalind Russell as the star. That same year, The Pajama Game introduced a new musical team, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. The tale of a worker and boss at a pajama factory starring John Raitt produced a number of hits, including “Hey There,” “Steam Heat,” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Having made their names with The Pajama Game, Adler and Ross turned in 1954 to Damn Yankees, which starred Wen Verdon as Lola and Ray Walston as her devilish boss, Mr. Applegate. “Two Lost Souls” and “Heart” were the major hits in this now perennially revived show.
In 1956, Lerner and Loewe created what would become Broadway’s longest-running hit, My Fair Lady. (Its run has since been surpassed by those of other musicals.) But it was not an easy task getting it staged at the Shubert. First, Moss Hart had to teach the young and green Julie Andrews the part of Eliza Doolittle, as Andrews later confessed. Then, on opening night, Rex Harrison locked himself in his dressing room, fearing that his practice of speaking his lyrics rather than singing his songs in the role of Henry Higgins would draw fire. He shouldn’t have worried: the show and its songs, including “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “On the Street Where You Live,” went on to be huge hits.
Also in 1956, New Haven audiences were treated to the marvelous Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing, which she played at the Shubert with one arm in a sling. The Jule Styne/Comden-Green numbers included “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over.”
In 1959, as the decade neared its end, the Shubert landed two hits. The first was The Sound of Music, with Mary Marin as Maria Rainier, later von Trapp, singing the title number and “My Favorite Things.” “Climb Every Mountain” also became a standard. The second was Fiorello, the Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of New York’s Mayor LaGuardia. Created by the recently formed partnership of Sheldon Harnick and New Haven’s own Jerry Bock, the success of Fiorello suggests that audiences were ready for musicals with a topical edge.
Fewer major musicals passed through New Haven in the 1960s as the genre’s Golden Age began to subside. But the 1960s was not without its hits. Zero Mostel thundered into New Haven in 1962 for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Zorba, which passed through New Haven in 1968. The decade closed on a patriotic note, with 1776giving Sherman Edwards his only Broadway hit. Still, audiences diminished precipitously, and no major new musicals arrived before the Shubert went dark in 1976.
Threatened with destruction, the grand old house was ultimately saved by the City of New Haven, which replaced the drab proscenium and lobby with a crystalline front in 1983. The facility became more of a community-oriented, educational resource than a springboard for Broadway musicals.
Since 1995, though, the Shubert has returned to its roots, striving to present world premieres and pre-Broadway productions. Its only real success in that realm was Frank Wildhorn’s 1995 Jekyll & Hyde, and even that lost money on Broadway, though it made a star of Linda Eder. The show, which originated at the Alley Theatre in Houston, came to New Haven as part of a 28-city tour, and “This Is the Moment” was already something of a hit song. But Wildhorn’s 1999 The Civil War flopped, as did The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, whose scenery wouldn’t even fit on the Shubert’s stage. In the cavernous Minskoff Theater in New York, the show lasted just 21 performances after 34 previews.
It’s unlikely, if not impossible, to return to the Shubert’s glory days because of the way the business of Broadway has changed. New musicals now tend to come from subsidized houses, either off-Broadway or in populous California. But Connecticut’s musical theater legacy is not completely over – a few new musicals still originate from Connecticut’s regional theaters.
Since the bicentennial year, when the Shubert shut down, musicals have undergone a sea change. Stephen Sondheim, though once a protege of Oscar Hammerstein II, revolutionized Broadway theater with challenging shows like Sunday in the Park with George and Pacific Overtures. Shows like Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde project a pop sound that in no way resembles the melodies of Cole Porter.
Then there are the so-called “jukebox” musicals, such as Elvis Presley tuner All Shook Up, which tried out in the Goodspeed Opera House’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester in 2005. Under the stewardship of Michael P. Price, Goodspeed has replaced the Shubert as the birthplace of hits. Man of La Mancha (launched before Price took over the management of the 1876 theater and running from 1965 to 1971), Shenandoah (1976-1977), and Annie (which first ran from 1977 to 1983) all got their start in the Victorian wedding-cake house in East Haddam on the banks of the Connecticut River. In all, 17 of the Goodspeed’s exports have gone on to New York, from Jerome Kern’s 1975 Very Good Eddie to Frank Loesser’s 1993 The Most Happy Fella. Both of those productions enjoyed decent runs, with Lincoln Center Theater involved in the latter’s tale of the Napa Valley grape grower, produced with a piano accompaniment.
The Goodspeed has most often sent revivals to Broadway. The long-running new shows tend to come either from off-Broadway like Rent, Avenue Q, and Spring Awakening, or from big California nonprofit theaters such as the Old Globe in Sand Diego and the La Jolla Playhouse.
Broadway shows rarely produce any musical chartbusters these days as they did when “Some Enchanted Evening” first graced the Shubert. Still, Price continues to search for the secret formula, in part because a show like Annie can be lucrative for a nonprofit theater, just as A Chorus Line was for Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York.
Connecticut’s other regional theaters have enjoyed less success in bouncing musicals up to Broadway – but not for lack of star power. A revival of the Brecht-Weill Happy End, originally produced in 1973 at Yale Repertory Theatre, lasted only briefly on Broadway, even with Meryl Street in a leading role. (She was not in the show in New Haven). Sondheim’s The Frogs, based on Aristophanes’s satiric play of the same name, was first performed in a Yale swimming pool, where it splashed around for a short run with Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang in the chorus. Thirty years later it moved to New York’s Lincoln Center, with Nathan Lane as the lead and librettist; it was apparently a bit of an acquired taste and lasted for just 126 performances. Walton Jones’s 1974 The 1940 Radio Hour made the jump from Yale to Broadway in 1979; it didn’t last long there but has been produced at thousands of theaters since. In 1997, a musical version of Marivaux’s Triumph of Love came to Broadway from Yale, and its run was also brief, though its case included Betty Buckley, F. Murray Abraham, Susan Egan, and Roger Bart.
Yale’s neighbor, Long Wharf Theater, exported many plays to Broadway, but no musicals. The Hartford Stage Company mounted Craig Carnelia’s Is There Life After High School? briefly on Broadway in May 1982. Mark Lamos brought his revue the Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm to the Longacre Theatre for a very short stay in 1999.
Near the end of its life as a living theater, the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford attempted to turn itself into a tryout house. Its most notable effort was the 1978 Ballroom, Michael Bennett’s musical revision of the acclaimed television drama Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. Dorothy Loudon and Vincent Gardenia had the leads, and much of the ballroom dancing was wonderful, but even the Bennett magic could not save this senior musical romance.
Though most of Connecticut’s major contributions to musical theater have come from the Shubert, and many from Goodspeed, the story of Connecticut’s role in fostering musical theater would not be complete without mentioning one other key venue. Before the Shubert was built, Hartford made history at the long-since-razed Parsons Theatre when George M. Cohan opened Little Johnny Jones in 1904. That show gave the world two timeless standards: “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” Cohan belongs to the “dark ages” of the musical, a remote period when the medium was just beginning to find its voice. But his flag-wavers and sentimental numbers still resonate, as do so many of the songs that first echoed through the Shubert and Goodspeed.
Out of Connecticut’s theaters came a voice that belongs to all of America.
Malcolm Johnson (“Connecticut’s Claim to Musical Theater Fame,” page 34) of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan (with a second home in Coventry) is a “semi-retired newspaperman” and a New York theater critic for The Hartford Courant. “I was always aware of the profusion of shows that opened at the Shubert, but some of the early details were illuminating – such as Al Jolson’s appearance in Robinson Crusoe, Jr.”
Wesport Country Playhouse, “American Theater in a Humble Connecticut Barn,” Spring 2015
“The Bushnell: Dotha’s Crowning Gift to Hartford,” Winter 2004/2005
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